How To Detect Organizational Turbulence And What To Do About It

by Jul 9, 2020Leadership

Since the extreme turbulence caused by the current global pandemic began, businesses have faced a challenge for which even public healthcare systems could scarcely contemplate. As unemployment hit historic levels and in the face of much uncertainty, some leaders have adopted an astonishing false sense of security about one thing – that the people in their organization are so grateful for their jobs they wouldn’t dream of leaving. This is more than an illusion – it’s a delusion. Good leaders know that just because something isn’t visible, doesn’t mean it isn’t present or important. But in extreme and ongoing turbulence, attention can narrow and leaders may falter.

Here are three ways leaders can stay abreast of what is happening:

  1. Embrace a healthy skepticism that includes yourself.

Often, leaders spend the most time with those who are closest to them on the organizational chart. A good leader has a few people around them whom they trust and who they work with to create plans of action, review the status of operations, and implement major decisions. In a workplace where the leader is either wary of turbulence or is worn out from it, an unspoken agreement may be in play, that is – don’t rock the boat, things are hard enough. The trouble with this is it becomes a human system that can’t tolerate upset to the point where bad news can’t get through until it becomes a crisis.

It’s the leader’s job to ensure that reality takes precedence. Rather than thinking about the executive team as being “honest and upfront” or “not fully transparent”, recognize that people’s behavior is determined by circumstance and their individual characteristics. If you aren’t getting as much information as you need and want, think about:

  • How do you respond to bad news?
  • Who do you favor?
  • Who do you ignore?
  1. Look in multiple places.

Amy Segumi, a consultant who is both a scientist and an artist, has a fascinating way of talking about turbulence as an analogy for organizational behavior. Her work, like my own, has much to do with making the invisible, visible. One way she does this is by painting on water. It’s not watercolor, it’s literally putting paint on water. Dropping paint on water allows you to see movement, even subtle movement that could easily be missed without the paint as a tracer.

Good leaders know that just because something isn’t visible, doesn’t mean it isn’t present or important, but in extreme and ongoing turbulence, attention can narrow and leaders may falter. Click To Tweet

Thinking about how currents in a body of liquid are analogous to your organization can help leaders quickly understand a few important concepts. First, “normal” in your organization is analogous to laminar flow, in which a fluid moves without turbulence. Changes in speed, direction, and viscosity will change the flow. And the more change to any or all of these characteristics, the greater the turbulence. Second, increasing distance from turbulence makes it harder to detect. Third, turbulence in different places is different. Observing how some people are responding to organizational turbulence doesn’t tell you the whole story. Leaders need multiple sources of information and different types of information.

  1. Stop doing all the talking – connect.

Especially in a crisis, leaders are told to “over-communicate”, which is usually interpreted to mean to increase the frequency, number of modalities, entertainment value, etc., of their messages. Outbound communication is good for transmitting information and for allowing people to hear from leaders. It is lousy as a way to connect because it’s a one-way street.

Ironically, when leaders pay more attention to connecting, communication improves as does trust. Leaders who are great at connecting have some things in common, such as:

  • Engage in spontaneous conversation with people at all levels.
    • Demonstrate curiosity about what people do and who they are.
    • Remember something about the people they meet, not every detail – but enough that others feel seen, heard, and significant.
  • Avoid monopolizing conversations.
    • Ask others for ideas and listen.
  • Are honest – mostly with themselves.

Leaders who assume that they don’t need to solve every problem will more naturally look to others for information, ideas, and collaboration. The troubling thing is, so many people think one way about themselves while others see them differently. It may be a human tendency, but it can be very limiting, if not damaging. Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics said it best, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The good news is, leaders can develop their ability to see what they hadn’t seen before – in themselves, others and the circumstances, even in a crisis. 


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